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Research Center Works To Prove And Improve Impact Of Social Entrepreneurs

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

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The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, commonly referred to as J-PAL, is based at MIT and seeks to reduce poverty by providing academic research on interventions by social entrepreneurs and others working in the space.

Quentin Palfrey, the executive director of J-PAL North America, worked for the Obama Administration before taking on the role at J-PAL. He notes that the center receives its funding from MIT and other philanthropic donors. The center has a staff of more than 30 full-time employees. He says, “J-PAL North America does not charge for services or generate sales revenue.”

J-PAL works on global poverty. J-PAL North America focuses on poverty in the United States.

A lawyer by training, Palfrey thinks about the work in terms of policy implications. The lessons from J-PAL may be more relevant to social entrepreneurs who may be betting more than some public funding on their ventures.

Quentin Palfrey, courtesy of J-PAL

“From low-income, first-time mothers in South Carolina; to teenagers living and attending school in the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago; to inmates struggling with substance use disorders in Kentucky, millions of people across the United States live in poverty and face incredible social challenges as a result,” Palfrey says.

The political climate demands evidence-based approaches to social problems, he says. “Increasingly, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels are turning to rigorous evidence on what works and why to create policies designed to combat poverty, improve schools, promote health, and address other social issues.”

J-PAL’s primary tool is the randomized control trial or RCT, Palfrey says. “We catalyze and support randomized evaluations, communicate evidence to help translate research into action, and help policymakers build capacity to create and use rigorous evidence.”

Melissa Kearney, Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and co-chair of the J-PAL State and Local Innovation Initiative, says that the goal is to understand how and why certain interventions are effective. “J-PAL is committed to replication, meaning if a research project demonstrates effectiveness of a particular intervention in one setting, that intervention should be implemented either the same way or with potential tweaks in another setting or with another population,” she says.

“This is a critical aspect to building evidence and to developing an understanding of how and under what circumstances a particular intervention delivers impact,” she adds.

Palfrey sees the pace of the work as its greatest challenge. “Policymakers often make crucial policy decisions based only on anecdote, status quo, or political belief. Replacing this process of creating policy with one based on scientific research can be slow. Moreover, policy priorities and approaches to governance can quickly shift with changes in administrations.”

Contentious politics make the J-PAL’s work more relevant than ever, he notes. “in today’s hyper-partisan political climate, evidence-based policymaking has garnered strong bipartisan support, and the movement for more efficient and effective governance continues to gain momentum.”

Palfrey notes that there are limitations to the center’s work as well. “The randomized controlled trial is an incredibly rigorous and powerful tool for evaluating whether social programs really work, but they are not always appropriate for every setting.”

He identified three specific limitations:

  1. In some cases, RCTs may not yield results as quickly as policymakers would like for decisions that require immediate evidence.
  2. It can be difficult to generalize results from one study to other contexts; for example, a summer jobs program that helps youth avoid violence in Chicago may not work in the same way in Philadelphia.
  3. In some cases, it might not be ethical to do a randomized controlled trial, for example when a program has the resources to serve everyone who is interested.

Kearney adds, “Too often the results of an evaluation are interpreted as a ‘verdict’ on an organization or a particular program. Instead, the social entrepreneurship community should recognize that this type of evidence building work is really an iterative process.”

She says sometimes social entrepreneurs just need to try again. “If a research project yields disappointing results about the impact of a particular program, depending on the circumstance, it might make sense to try to make incremental changes to the way that particular program is implemented and evaluate the revised implementation.”

Palfrey believes the work is a part of helping people out of poverty. “By transforming government and building a movement for evidence-based policy, we can help lift millions in the United States out of poverty. Committing to evidence-based policymaking will require innovating at every level of government and challenging the status quo. I’m confident that by doing so we can allocate our resources in a way that maximizes benefits for those who need it most.”

On Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 1:00 Eastern, Palfrey will join me here for a live discussion about J-PAL’s work and how it can be utilized by social entrepreneurs to increase their impact. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

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